Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Book Review: Woodstock FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Fabled Garden, by Thomas E. Harkins

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

Woodstock FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Fabled Garden
Written by Thomas Edward Harkins
Backbeat Books
360 pages, 2019

When we were both Grad students at New York University in the 1990s, Thomas Harkins and I would have some deep discussions about music filled with humor and respect for each other's tastes. Oh, they could be very different, with me being the punker and him the grunge-lovin’ hippie into Classic Rock. And yet, we found enough common ground in musical acts like the Who and Melanie to keep our conversations lively.

The FAQ series by Backbeat is a bit of a misnomer in that it is not as the acronym states “Frequently Asked Questions,” but rather more as the phonetic sounding of FAQ / Facts. Like Harkins’ previous book from 2016, Pearl Jam FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Seattle’s Most Enduring Band (co-written with Bernard M. Corbett), he takes both a deep look through a fans eyes, without being too sentimental, yet manages to keep it quite personal at the same time. Feel the love, and light your candle in the rain.

In his introduction, Harkins rightfully states that Woodstock “is considered by many to have been the definitive sociocultural event of the 1960s. It is also widely considered the most famous concert of all time.” In my opinion, the Monterrey Music Festival was the prologue and Altamont the conclusion, with Woodstock being the body of the text, if you’ll pardon a print-era analogy.

Harkins takes a topic that has been covered extensively and wisely uses a few formulas that work quite well. For example, he starts with how the 3 Days Festival of Music and Art came to fruition, and then discusses each and every band and/or musician who played over those days. In most of other missives I’ve read that are dedicated to the sometimes grueling weekend, there is a ton written about the main players (e.g., Janis, Jimi, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), or they are mentioned right off the bat, and some of the lesser knowns (Quill, the Keef Hartley Band, the Incredible String Band, etc.) tend to fall by the wayside or as a footnote. Here, Harkins thoughtfully goes chronologically through each and every one who performed. Nice touch, as some of the bands that didn’t make the cut of the film or initial LPs are the ones I am less familiar with and want to learn about more thoroughly.

Each of the chapters referring to the bands are usually broken into three separate sections (with rare exceptions, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young who each get a prelude). The leadup to Woodstock (i.e., the history of the band and its members) is subtitled “As the Seeds Were Sown,” the Festival experience for that artist or group is “In the Garden,” and the post-experience “The Harvest Reaped.” Each subtitle is followed by a relative quip, such as “Airplanes, Starships, and a Side of Hot Tuna” for Jefferson Airplane’s later period.

What’s also impressive is that inasmuch as Harkins is a fan, he also is not afraid to shy away from disruptive personalities, nor is he reluctant to discuss substance abuses (like, was there anyone there who wasn’t completely zonked on stage, other than probably Ravi Shankar?). It’s in the third, post-concert section where this is especially true, with too many of those falling into obscurity due to their own self-destructive devices and dependencies (or of their management pulling power plays with the filmmakers during the festival, for example).

Commented on – though almost not as an exact focus – in this book is the sheer amount of songs about Woodstock by the artists that were there (and in Joni Mitchell’s case, who arguably wrote what has become the definitive number about it, she was absent). For me, more than “Woodstock” with it’s iconic refrain “By the time we got to Woodstock / We were half a million strong,” it was Melanie (Safka) and her “Candles in the Rain / Lay Down” that speaks to me about it (“We all had caught the same disease / And we all sang a song of peace”). Another example that Harkins mentions is Creedence Clearwater Revival’s (CCR) B-side “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” which the author describes as “at least, in part, a commentary to the band’s experiences at Woodstock.”

Despite the number of pages, most bands are given a few and concise sheets to sum up their histories and experiences, which is fine, because as I stated, there has been a lot written about that period, including by performers in their autobiographies, and not all of them match the actual history of certain events, which Harkins also wisely addresses. Sometimes it’s easy to tell when the author is excited about a particular band as there will be a bit more about them, such as with the Grateful Dead; I made a note that “Lots of post-Woodstock Dead by a Dead-icated Dead Head” (most pictures of Harkins is of him wearing a tie-dye shirt…). It’s understandable to get excited about one’s heroes, and that is a flag worth waving.

The author
I do have to admit that I don’t always agree with some of Harkins conclusions, such as when he mentions Joplin's truly soulful cover of the Bee Gees’ ‘To Love Somebody’ "which, even under these less than ideal circumstances, added a dimension of emotion that was lacking in the 1967 pop original.” While I am certainly no fan of the Bee Gees’ output from “Jive Takin’” onward, I think their early material is very moving even in it's pop music skin. But differences of opinion are part of what makes music so visceral for us, so personal, and what lead to our interesting conversations about it.

The final chapter deals with the aftermath of the Woodstock Festival, including the films and follow-up concerts that were Woodstock-centric (e.g., anniversaries). Harkins is correct to say that part of the lasting legacy of the weekend was the film that followed, more so I believe more than the three-record soundtrack that was released at first (there have been ever expanded versions of the concert that have been circulated since). One testament to this book is that after finishing it, it inspired me to seek out other media sources and find videos of the performances and spent some time with those.

The book is thoroughly researched, and there is lots of information for those of us who just don’t have the time (or inkling) to read the mass amounts of tomes written about the subject. This is a beautifully concise snapshot full of excitement about a topic of love and scholarly fanship.

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